BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Britain’s prime minister announced plans Tuesday to withdraw more than 1,000 troops from Iraq by year’s end, and Iraq said it will take over security from British forces in the southern Basra province within two months.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown was on an unannounced visit, which also was to include a session with U.S. Commander David Petraeus before the British leader flies to Basra to meet with his forces and military leaders in the oil-rich region in the deep south of Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities have aired concerns that a British drawdown could jeopardize the region’s rich oil resources and the land supply routes from Kuwait to Baghdad.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said his forces “are prepared to take over security of Basra within two months and we will.”
“Basra will be one of the provinces where Iraqi forces will completely take over security,” he said after the meeting in his Green Zone office.
Brown confirmed al-Maliki’s plans and said, “as we move to overwatch, we can move down to 4,500.” Brown, who said he was optimistic the troops would be home by Christmas, spoke at the Green Zone residence of Britain’s top commander in Iraq, Gen. Bill Rollo.
Brown added that any further decision on British troop withdrawals would be made next year.
British troops vacated their last remaining downtown Basra base last month, accelerating calls from the British public to reduce force levels further.
Britain currently has about 5,500 soldiers based mainly at an air base on the fringes of the southern city of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said rocket and mortar attacks on their base at Basra airport had fallen sharply in the last month, with only a few attempted strikes.
Karim al-Miahi, the head of the Basra security committee and a member in the provincial council said, “The withdrawal of the British forces has had a negative effect on security in the city. Iraqi forces still are not able to control the situation which has deteriorated over the past three weeks. There has been an increase in assassinations of police and religious leaders. As for the areas around the British base, the situation is more stable. Shelling there has stopped.”
Abdul-Maunim Karim, 50, a retired sailor who lives near the presidential palace now vacated by the British, agreed the area was quieter because the shelling had stopped. “But throughout the city violence remains at about the levels before the British troops left.”
Ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was greeted with a salvo of mortars as he made a final visit to the camp before leaving office in June. Soldiers at the time reported as many as 10 strikes a day.
Military leaders hope that Britain will remain in charge only of training Iraq troops and border guards, securing key supply lines and responding to emergencies when called on by local commanders.
The planned troop reduction in Basra came as the country saw record low casualty numbers for September, suggesting U.S.-led forces are making headway against extremist factions and disrupting their ability to strike back.
The U.S. military toll for September was 65, the lowest since July 2006, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from death announcements by the American command and Pentagon.
More dramatic, however, was the decline in Iraqi civilian, police and military deaths. The figure was 988 in September — 50 percent lower than the previous month and the lowest tally since June 2006, when 847 Iraqis died.
The Iraqi death count is considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported.
While civilian deaths were sharply lower last month, Baghdad remained the center of violence in percentage terms. For this year, 54 percent of all sectarian killings occurred in the capital and suburbs. That figure declined to just above 49 percent in September. For the year, the next two most violent regions were the provinces of Diyala and Nineveh.
The number of civilian deaths in Baghdad, 487, also far outstripped any other region in September. Next highest was Diyala province, an al-Qaida sanctuary immediately north and east of the capital, where 124 civilians were killed.
AP tallies civilian, Iraqi military and Iraqi police deaths each day as reported by police, hospital officials, morgue workers and verifiable witness accounts. The security personnel include Iraqi military, police and police recruits, and bodyguards. Insurgent deaths are not included.
On Tuesday, 10 people were killed, including two women, a child and three police officers, in four separate attacks. A suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle at a police checkpoint near Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 10. Also, two roadside bombs exploded earlier in Baghdad, killing three people and wounding nine others.